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Free Birds

by Kevin Taft
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Friday Nov 1, 2013
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A scene from ’Free Birds’
A scene from ’Free Birds’  (Source:Relativity Media)

It seems everyone wants to get into the computer animation game since Pixar cornered the market. And while some studios have gotten close (Dreamworks, Sony) and some films have given the Disney staples a run for their money ("Rise of the Guardians" is criminally underrated), what we end up seeing on screen still doesn’t quite make the mark.

Relativity Media and Reel FX Animation Studios have now thrown their hat into the ring with the Thanksgiving comedy "Free Birds," and the results are charming, but still mixed. What it has going for it is that is about a holiday that doesn’t usually get much attention. The other thing is that it has an off-kilter sense of humor that doesn’t veer off into endless self-reverential and pop-culture nods. This is a fairly straight-forward story that only twice added in a joke that was a bit too on the nose. ("Angry Birds" anyone?)

The story is about an outcast turkey named Reggie (Owen Wilson), who lives on an organic farm where his clan is getting fattened up for Thanksgiving. But Reggie is somehow clued in to this, and forever tries to let everybody know they are doomed. But when the President of the United States (Jimmy Hayward) chooses Reggie as the yearly turkey to be "pardoned," Reggie escapes the farm and lands in the lap of luxury at Camp David.

There, he watches TV all day and orders an endless supply of cheese pizza. But another turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) kidnaps Reggie to take him on a mission. That mission involves a secret time machine that will take them to the first Thanksgiving, where they can convince the pilgrims to keep turkey off the menu.

After a fun action sequence and some travelling in time via a time machine named S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei) -- that is very reminiscent of Jodi Foster’s interstellar travel in "Contact," by the way -- the duo arrives in 1621, a few days before the first Thanksgiving. There, they meet another turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler), to whom Reggie takes a liking. But before he can deal with his burgeoning feelings, he and Jake need to deal with a disgruntled Myles Standish (Colm Meaney), who is determined to put turkey on their Thanksgiving table.

The set-up is clever and fun, and for the most part it’s a zippy ride. There is a point where the slapstick and back and forth banter between Reggie and Jake feels old, and the romance with Jenny isn’t as touching as one might want, but those are minor trifles. The fun stuff is the time travel, which is actually used to clever effect in the film’s finale. There is, though, a familiarity with the story that makes it feel a bit stale. There are the clever touches thrown in and all of the characters are charming, but the filmmakers needed to make some of those minor characters stand out more. There are some amusing supporting characters such as a not so bright (and blind) turkey Amos, the President’s narcoleptic young daughter, and there’s a great chase sequence in the secret government lab where the time machine is housed. But there still seemed to be something missing. And while the audience with whom I saw it (which included plenty of kids) is any indication, there were laughs, but not as profound as I expected.

Voice work by Owens and Harrellson is spot on, but Amy Poehler felt a little miscast. She’s such a great comedienne, but here she didn’t seem to have that romantic connection she needed to have to make the relationship work. That said, George Takei as S.T.E.V.E. is a riot. He has impeccable comic timing and can do no wrong in my book.

Ultimately though the film directed by Jimmy Hayward ("Horton Hears a Who") is harmless fun and will certainly entertain. Will it go down as a classic? No. Is it one that stays with you long after you leave the theatre? Not likely. But for the moment, the story of Reggie and his fight to save his kind from a National Holiday is enjoyable and a pleasant way to celebrate our nation’s day of thanks.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

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